Lenox Library, New York City

The Lenox Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street in New York City, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene on December 20, 1913. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The modern concept of a public library in the United States began in the second half of the 19th century, and many such libraries had their origins in private libraries that were run by organizations or by wealthy benefactors. Here in New York City, these included the Astor Library and Lenox Library. Both were open to the public—with restrictions, particularly here at the Lenox Library—but they were intended primarily for researchers, and the books did not circulate. However, these two libraries formed the basis for the New York Public Library, which was established upon their merger in 1895.

The Lenox Library was the younger of the two institutions, having been established in 1870, although its founder, James Lenox, had begun collecting rare books several decades earlier. The son of wealthy merchant Robert Lenox, James inherited over a million dollars after his father’s death in 1839, along with a significant amount of undeveloped farmland in what is now the Upper East Side. He had studied law at Columbia, although he never actually practiced, instead spending much of his time collecting books and art.

For many years Lenox kept his collection in his house, which became increasingly overcrowded and disorganized. As a result, he created the Lenox Library in 1870, and that year he hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a suitable building, which would be located on Lenox-owned land here on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park between 70th and 71st Streets. It was one of the first major commissions for Hunt, who would go on to become one of the leading American architects of the late 19th century.

The building, shown here in the first photo, was completed in 1877. It was a combination library and art museum, featuring four reading rooms plus a painting gallery and a sculpture gallery. Admission was free of charge, but for the first ten years patrons were required to obtain tickets in advance by writing to the library, which would then send the tickets by mail. In any case, the collections here at the library would not have been of much interest to the casual reader. Because of Lenox’s focus on rare books, the library was, in many ways, more of a museum of old books than a conventional library. In addition, its holdings were far less comprehensive than most libraries, with a narrow focus on the subjects that Lenox was personally interested in.

Despite these limitations, though, the library was valuable for researchers searching for hard-to-find volumes. Perhaps the single most important book in its collection was a Gutenberg Bible, which Lenox had acquired in 1847. It was the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States, and it is now owned by the New York Public Library, where it is on display in the McGraw Rotunda. Other rare works included Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Bay Psalm Book, which was the first book published in the American colonies. Aside from books, the library also had important documents, including the original manuscript of George Washington’s farewell address, and its art collection featured famous paintings such as Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole, and a George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Overall, James Lenox contributed about 30,000 books to the library, which continued to grow after his death in 1880. By the 1890s, it had over 80,000 books, thanks to a number of significant donations and purchases. These additions helped to broaden the scope of the collection, making it more useful to the general public. However, the library struggled financially during the late 19th century, as did the Astor Library, and in 1895 they merged with the newly-created Tilden Trust to form the New York Public Library.

The new library subsequently moved into its present-day location at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911, and the former Lenox Library was sold to industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who demolished it to build his mansion on the site. A longtime business associate of Andrew Carnegie, Frick was the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, and by the 1910s he was among the richest men in the country. In 1918, for example, the first Forbes Rich List ranked him second only to John D. Rockefeller, with a net worth of around $225 million.

Frick had purchased the library property in 1906 for $2.47 million, but he had to wait until the library had moved its collections to the new building before he could take possession of the land. He ultimately acquired it in 1912, and demolished the old library that same year. His new home was then built here over the next two years, with a Beaux-Arts exterior that was designed by Thomas Hastings, a noted architect whose firm, Carrère and Hastings, had also designed the New York Public Library. The second photo shows the house in December 1913, in the midst of the construction. The exterior was largely finished by this point, but it would take nearly a year before Frick moved into the house with his wife Adelaide and their daughter Helen.

Like James Lenox, Frick was a collector, using his vast fortune to amass a variety of artwork and furniture. Upon his death in 1919, he stipulated that his house and its contents would become a museum, although Adelaide would be allowed to live here for the rest of her life. She died in 1931, and over the next four years the house was converted into a museum, opening to the public in 1935 as the Frick Collection.

Today, despite its changes in use, the exterior of the building from this view is not significantly different than it was when the first photo was taken more than a century ago. It still houses the Frick Collection, with the museum receiving around 300,000 visitors per year. Although not as large as many of the other major art museums in New York, it features a high-quality collection of paintings and furniture, including a good variety of works by the European Old Masters. The building itself is also an important work of art in its own right, and in 2008 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its architectural significance.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, New York City (2)

The house at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 58th Street in New York City, around 1905-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2019:

Perhaps no family is more closely associated with the Gilded Age than the Vanderbilts, who rose to prominence in the mid-19th century. The family patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) gained his wealth through dominance of first the steamboat and then the railroad industries, and he left nearly all of his fortune to his son, William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885), who managed to double its value in just eight years before his death. At the time, he had a net worth of about $200 million, which was divided among his eight children.

While the first two Vanderbilt generations had grown the family fortune, the third generation primarily spent it. This included the construction of lavish mansions here on Fifth Avenue and summer homes in resort communities such as Newport. William Henry Vanderbilt had built homes a little south of here on Fifth Avenue in the early 1880s for himself and two of his daughters, but his children outdid him in their massive, costly houses.

One of his sons, William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849-1920) built the Petit Chateau on Fifth Avenue, along with Marble House in Newport, and his youngest child, George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862-1914) built the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, the largest private home ever constructed in the United States. However, it was his eldest child, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899) who built two of the most memorable Gilded Age mansions, with The Breakers in Newport, and his primary residence here on Fifth Avenue, between West 57th and West 58th Streets.

After the death of his grandfather in 1877, the younger Cornelius had inherited over $5 million, and in 1883 he used some of this money to built this five-story home. It was designed by architect George  P. Post, featuring a Châteauesque design with a red brick exterior and limestone trim. It was completed in 1883, and it was intended to surpass his younger brother’s Petit Chateau, which had been built a year earlier. At the time, the house was situated at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 57th Street (a photo in an earlier post shows a better view of that side of the house), and it was considerably larger than that of his brother’s.

However, this house was not large enough for Cornelius. He inherited nearly $70 million from his father in 1885, and he soon set about expanding his home. In 1887 he purchased five houses along West 58th Street and demolished them, clearing the way for an addition that would extend his mansion along the length of the entire block. This $3 million project was done to prevent any other mansions from rivaling it in size, and it was evidently successful, because the 130-room house remains the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

The work on the house was finished in 1893, two years before The Breakers was completed in Newport. However, Vanderbilt did not get to enjoy either house for very long, because he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896 and died three years later, at the age of 55. His wife Alice (1845-1934) outlived him by many years, though, and she continued to live here well into the 20th century, alternating her time between here and Newport. The first photo was taken sometime within about a decade after Cornelius Vanderbilt’s death, showing the northern side of the house from Grand Army Plaza, near the southeast corner of Central Park. The part of the house in the foreground is the 1893 addition, with the original house partially visible in the distance on the left.

By the early 20th century, this section of Fifth Avenue had become increasingly commercialized, and many of the Gilded Age mansions were being demolished and replaced with new skyscrapers as New York’s elite moved northward into the Upper East Side. However, Alice Vanderbilt resisted moving, remaining here in the house until she finally sold it in 1926 for $7 million. She then belatedly joined the northward migration, moving about ten blocks uptown to East 67th Street.

The new owners of the property had no intention of keeping the house here. It had never been a particularly practical residence to begin with, as it was built more for show than for comfort. It was also expensive to maintain, requiring more than 30 servants just to care for the house and its sole occupant. Adding to this was the fact that, by the 1920s, this land had become far more valuable as commercial property. So, the house was demolished later in 1926, and the flagship Bergdorf Goodman department store was built here in its place.

The department store, completed in 1928, is still standing here, and it is still the home of Bergdorf Goodman. However, almost nothing remains from the first photo, as all of the other low-rise 19th century buildings on the surrounding blocks have also long since been demolished. The only surviving building from the first photo is the present-day Peninsula New York hotel, visible a few blocks away on the far left side of the scene. Built in 1905 as the Gotham Hotel, it was one of the early skyscrapers along this section of Fifth Avenue, and it looms over the mansions as an ominous sign of the commercial development that was steadily making its way uptown.

Grand Staircase, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The Grand Staircase, seen from the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, around 1902-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

These two photos show the view in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, facing west from just inside the main entrance. In the center of the scene, just beyond the columns, is the Grand Staircase. Both the Great Hall and the staircase were completed in 1902, as part of an expansion that was designed by noted architect Richard Morris Hunt. Prior to this, the museum was much smaller and set back from Fifth Avenue in Central Park. However, Hunt’s addition extended the museum eastward all the way to the street, in the process creating a Beaux-Arts masterpiece that ranks among New York’s most important architectural works of the early 20th century.

Upon completion, the museum used the Great Hall as a sculpture gallery, with a mix of ancient and modern statues on display here. There were no statues here in the central part of the room, as shown here, but there were a few in the niches in the walls, along with others along the walls of the vestibule between the Great Hall and the Grand Staircase. Some of the identifiable works here in this scene include California (1858) by Hiram Powers, located in the niche on the left side; Aqua Viva (1884) by Frank Edwin Elwell, between the first and second columns from the left; and just to the right of it a bust of Pierre Jean de Béranger (1834) by Pierre Jean David d’Angers. There is also a statue of Napoleon between the third and fourth columns, although the artist’s name is not legible from this distance.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, the statues that were once displayed here in the Great Hall have since been relocated to other parts of the museum. Even the statues in the niches are gone, having been replaced by floral arrangements. The building is now substantially larger than it was in the early 20th century, but overall the Great Hall and the Grand Staircase look much the same as they did when they were completed. Aside from the lack of statuary, the only significant difference between these two photos is the information desk, which is now situated here in the center of the Great Hall, directly in front of the main entrance.

Great Hall, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (3)

The view looking south in the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, around 1907. Historic image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

These photos show the same general view as the ones in an earlier post, although these were taken from the ground floor rather than the balcony. As discussed in that post, the Great Hall was completed in 1902 as part of an expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it originally served as both an entrance hall and a sculpture gallery. The main entrance to the museum is on the left side, just beyond the columns. Directly opposite the entrance, on the right side of the scene, is the Grand Staircase, which led to the original part of the museum building.

The first photo was taken a few years after this wing of the museum was completed, showing it filled with a variety of sculptures. Some of the notable works here include Struggle of the Two Natures in Man by George Grey Barnard, which was carved from 1892 to 1894 and donated to the museum two years later. It stands in the foreground on the left side of the photo, and just beyond it in the distance is Evening (1891) by Frederick Wellington Ruckstull and Bacchante and Infant Faun (1894) by Frederick William MacMonnies. Other identifiable works include Latona and Her Children, Apollo and Diana (1874) by William Henry Rinehart, located in the lower right corner, and Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii (1859) by Randolph Rogers, which is partially visible on the extreme right side of the photo.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, all of these identifiable statues are still in the museum’s collections, although they are now located in or near the Charles Engelhard Court, where a number of important American sculptures are on display. There are a few sculptures here in the present-day scene of the Great Hall, with the ancient Egyptian Colossal Seated Statue of a Pharaoh in the foreground, and the ancient Greek Athena Parthenos in the distance, but otherwise the Great Hall is used primarily as an entrance hall. There is now an information desk in the center, which is largely hidden from view by the crowd in the 2019 photo, and there are ticket counters at either end of the room.

Great Hall, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (2)

The view looking north in the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

These photos show the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taken facing the opposite direction of the ones in the previous post. Here, the view is from the southeast corner of the room, with the main entrance just out of view to the right and the Grand Staircase on the left. When the first photo was taken, about five years after the Great Hall was completed in 1902, the space function as both an entrance hall and a sculpture gallery, featuring a variety of bronze and marble statues.

Many of these statues seem difficult to identify, but the one that is partially visible in the lower left corner is Sappho (1895) by Count Prosper d’Epinay, which remains on display elsewhere in the museum more than a century later. Other identifiable works include Medea (1869) by William Wetmore Story, located on the far right side; California (1858) by Hiram Powers, in the alcove on the left side; Bohemian Bear Tamer (1888) by Paul Wayland Bartlett, standing in the lower center of the scene; and Bacchante and Infant Faun (1894) by Frederick William MacMonnies, visible in the distance in the lower right center. All of these works likewise remain in the museum’s collections.

Today, the Great Hall remains in use as the museum’s main entrance, with few architectural changes since the first photo was taken. However, it no longer features a large statuary collection, as most of these works have been moved to other parts of the museum as the building has expanded. Even the statues in the alcoves have since been removed, and replaced by floral displays. Only two large statues still stand here, with one in front of each group of ticket counters. On the south side, closest to the foreground, is the Greek Statue of Athena Parthenos from around 170 B.C., and on the north side in the distance is the Egyptian Colossal Seated Statue of a Pharaoh from around 1919 to 1878 B.C.

Great Hall, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (1)

Looking south in the Great Hall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in an earlier post, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been at its current location on Fifth Avenue since 1880, although it has gone through numerous expansions over the years. Perhaps the most architecturally-significant addition came in 1902, when a new main entrance was constructed in front of the older portion of the building. It was designed by prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt, and it featured ornate Beaux-Arts designs on both the exterior and interior.

The front entrance, located on the left side of the scene beyond the columns, opens into the Great Hall, which is shown here in this scene from the second floor balcony. Like the exterior, most of the interior here is made of limestone, and its ceiling consists of three domes supported by arches, which correspond to the three arches on the Fifth Avenue facade of the building. From here, visitors could proceed to the main portion of the museum by way of the Grand Staircase beyond the columns on the right, which was also designed by Hunt.

The first photo was taken within about five years after this wing was completed. At the time, the museum had a severe shortage of gallery space, and the Great Hall was used to display statues. This was probably not Hunt’s original intent for this space, though, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens criticized it for being inadequate for such use. In 1905, he remarked, as quoted in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Architectural History, about “the dismal failure of Hunt’s hall for sculpture there. It may be good architecture and a glorious bath of Caracalla thing, but it’s a damn bad gallery for the proper disposition of works of art.”

As the first photo shows, the collection on display here in the Great Hall included a mix of both ancient and modern works. Many of these works are still owned by the museum, and one of the most notable of these is Bacchante and Infant Faun, which stands in the bottom center of the photo. Created in 1894 by Frederick William MacMonnies, this bronze sculpture was a gift of architect Charles Follen McKim, whose firm of McKim, Mead & White would later design several large additions to the museum.

Further in the distance, other identifiable works include, from roughly left to right, Medea (1869) by William Wetmore Story, Fisher Boy (1857) by Hiram Powers, The Bather (1894) by Edmund Austin Stewardson, Sappho (1895) by Count Prosper d’Epinay, Bohemian Bear Tamer (1888) by Paul Wayland Bartlett, Hector and Andromache (1871) by Giovanni Maria Benzoni, and Cleopatra (1869) by William Wetmore Story.

There are also at least three ancient sculptures here, with a large bronze statue of emperor Trebonianus Gallus (A.D. 251-253) standing between the columns in the distant center of the scene, and two headless statues of women on either side of it. The one on the left in this view is Greek, dating from the second half of the 4th century B.C., and the one on the right is a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Eirene, which was carved around A.D. 14-68. Both of these statues are now on display only yards away from where they once stood in the first photo, in a gallery beyond the columns in the distance.

Today, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has grown far beyond the confines of its early 20th century facility. The Great Hall is now used almost exclusively as an entrance hall, with only a few works on display here. In the present-day scene, there is an information desk in the center of the Great Hall, with ticket counters in front of the columns at both the north and south sides of the room. On the second floor balcony, on the left side of this view, is a cafe. Otherwise, though, the architecture itself has remained essentially unchanged since the Great Hall was completed more than a century ago, and it continues to welcome visitors into the museum, with nearly 6.5 million people passing through here in 2019.